Category Archives: Television

Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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Filed under Aesthetics, America, Anger, Criticism, Dissent, Doubt, Ego, Essays, H.L. Mencken, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Being Here

McQuayDuring NBC’s broadcast of last Saturday’s USA Track and Field Championships from Des Moines, just before the gun to start the mens’ 400 meter final, the screen fills with each participant, lanes two to eight. Ato Boldon, who does color commentary, offers each athlete’s resume, and, in lane five, he introduces Tony McQuay, former Florida Gator, silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 400, and one of the race favorites.

McQuay finishes second. I was there.

In fact, if you pause your DVR at just the right moment and scour the spectators in the second row (just to the right of McQuay’s left ear) you’ll see my daughter leaning toward me. I’m wearing a Columbia blue cap—nearly white in the glare—and sunglasses.

I remember exactly what she said… “We’re probably on television right now.”

We watched the runners’ backs, and two pairs of cameramen and cord handlers played leapfrog as they rushed past the runner on screen to the runner next to appear. One pair had odd lanes, the other even. They deftly reached their spot and froze, listening through earbuds to commentary we couldn’t hear, gathering and playing out cord as needed. Just before the runners took their blocks, they scurried into the narrow alley between track and stadium wall, dragging line behind them. One dropped his camera on a tripod to capture the opening strides.

Perhaps you anticipate where I’m headed. As much as I enjoyed being at the championship (the tickets were a birthday gift from my daughter), I sometimes felt we real spectators were secondary.

I remember the cameramen well not only because I saw them more clearly than the runners but also because everyone seemed hyperaware of them. The crowd booed if the cameras intruded by lingering overlong, and, the day before, fans yelled at one of the cord handlers when he left a loop on the track as the athlete ran up in that lane. Though he yanked it out, it seemed a close call.

In track—as in many sports, I suspect—TV coverage beats being there. Being there, you feel the tension and anticipation of the big moment. You see the subtle expressions of athletes’ off-camera demeanors. The excitement of the crowd and athletes is viral. However, most races are blurs. With the limitations of the human eye to discern depth and distance, it’s tough to tell what’s happening on the far side. You can’t even tell who’s leading down the home stretch because you only have one angle.

You also wonder what television sees and you miss. When cameras eye their own monitors they discover tunnels of frames, a narrowing hall into infinity. Similarly, at a “live sporting event”—an odd label in itself—you fall prey to postmodern disassociation. It’s all about watching. And as I watched, I felt myself watching. If I’d had a portable TV, I might have seen myself and waved at myself waving.

The first time I went to one of my older brother’s high school meets under lights, I could hardly wait to go down onto the track and sprint between its lines. The moment, and place, seemed charged with glory. In Des Moines, some of the same urgency beset me, but usually during un-broadcast junior finals or deep prelim flights. Otherwise, I was strangely confused. Why were we there? Were we actors in the broadcast? My living room is certainly cooler and my favorite chair more comfortable than a bleacher bench. The food is better at home.

I thought about Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, when he describes his main character, Chance, on a television talk show set:

The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered around the world—into rooms, cars, boats, planes, living rooms, and bedrooms. He would be seen by more people than he could ever meet in his entire life—people who would never meet him. The people who watched him on their sets did not know who actually faced them; how could they, if they had never met him? Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of viewers’ eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.

Forget my 1.5 seconds of fame—no one watches track!—if I felt licked up and/or peeled what about those at the center of this contest? And why stop with this meet or this medium? What does it mean to become an image, to distill experience and serve it so neatly? What about the living event?

Soon people will begin asking whether I enjoyed myself, and I’ll answer, truthfully, “Yes.” Yet, part of me wonders what I experienced, how much was real at all.

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Filed under Aesthetics, America, Brave New World, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Running, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts

And I Am An Addict

thewestwing.banner.gettyDamn you, Netflix.

Recently Netflix posted 156 episodes of The West Wing, seven seasons, and I’m whistling the theme song, dreaming of C. J., and worrying about political disputes now 14 years old… and fictional.

I was once so proud of missing the first incarnation. From 1999-2006, when people talked about The West Wing, I shrugged and blithely said, “Never seen it.” When others writhed in disbelief, I smirked. When they insisted I could catch up and that catching up would be worth it, I resisted their evil temptations. I would hold out.

Then Netflix brought it back. Like my mother, hurt that I turned down last night’s boiled cabbage, Netflix brought me a steaming bowlful for breakfast. Only, in this analogy The West Wing isn’t boiled cabbage, it’s green eggs and ham—delicious and served in such perfect portions I always have room for one… more… episode.

Now I’m sleepy and cranky and interested in little else.

A colleague at work told me about someone on Twitter who shares my dilemma. Like me, he’s watching the series for the first time and tweeting witty exaltation about “developments” in the last episode he watched… as if it aired last night, as if anyone in this day and age knew what the hell he was talking about or could share his enthusiasm. But I do understand. I know. I too feel the urge to yell “Let Bartlet be Bartlet!” from the rooftops.

I know, I know, that means nothing to you. That’s the trouble with television series on the computer, they are my ugly secret, drinking I do alone in the dim house. My wife discovers me in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and babbling about getting one more fix. So many ugly confessions to make—Friday Night Lights, Life, Eureka, Dollhouse, Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, Jericho, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Better Off Ted, Pushing Daisies, Sports Night, Slings and Arrows, The Tudors, A Gifted Man.

I’m hopeless and will need at least 20 steps to get better. Yet who can understand? Who will be my sponsor? I’m caught in a time warp—sort of like Life on Mars, which shouldn’t have been cancelled. I carry my furtive addiction like a looped spoon and a length of surgical tubing, afraid to admit my sickness and afraid to find company, afraid to quit and afraid to seek help.

Last night I finished the end of West Wing’s first season, and I thought I could cut myself off there, go cold turkey, but, after a Town Hall in which—between the President’s brilliant answers during Q and A—Toby learned his brother on the broken space shuttle landed safely, some West Virginian white supremacist Nazi took a shot at Charlie because he’s dating Zooey! I could hardly be expected to wait… how did people manage it when summer months passed between one season and the next? I had to see what happened and what happened had two parts.

122 episodes to go. Help me.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Television, The West Wing, Thoughts, Worry

You Pick

After five abortive starts on this week’s blog post, I decided to write fifteen opening sentences instead. Maybe you, Dear Reader, can help me choose which to pursue…

1. Even when snow doesn’t fall, winter can leave you snowblind—lost between landmarks and anxious for traction.

2. It’s unfortunate self-loathing is my great subject, as no one wants to read about it and, of course, I don’t blame them.

3. Those who call blogging the land of confession need to remember it’s also the land of amnesia.

4. People seem surprised when they discover I follow football, and, to be honest, I’m embarrassed.  I’m a fan despite myself.

5. Insomnia has taught me all about lonely hours, ones that leave you feeling you’re earth’s last inhabitant.

6. New advertisements on TV beg Catholics to return to the church and, a fallen away Catholic myself, I hear them luring me to the rocks like a Siren song.

7. One of the indignities of aging is how little sympathy it elicits.

8. Emerson said “Imitation is suicide,” but, if it is, it’s the slowest sort.  Most of our days are a deliberate imitation of the day before.

9. In my running list of ugly emotions—anger, hopelessness, contempt, and many more—envy is moving to the top of the chart with a bullet.

10. After five years in Chicago, I understand the appeal of urban living.  I’m addicted and have trouble even picturing suburban or rural life.

11. Recently I’ve been thinking about Chuang Tzu’s fantasy in which a man dreams of being a butterfly and wakes to wonder which is real, the dream or his life.  That’s exactly how I feel about work and home.

12. The body replaces every cell in seven years.  My mind replaces memories much faster.

13. The other day someone told me Kafka’s friends found him hilarious.  I can’t believe it…  but maybe that’s because I don’t understand humor myself.

14. Sometimes I envy people who carry only fatigue home from work.

15. One of my friends has a peculiar gift for being eloquent even when he has nothing to say.

PS. Should YOU want to write a post using one of these openings, please do.  Just leave a link in my comments section.

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Filed under Advertising, Aging, Blogging, Chicago, Doubt, Education, Envy, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Television, Thoughts, Urban Life, Winter, Work, Writing

A Fish Out of Its Demographic

Vox (Hear me read this)

No one would know it—because I’m ashamed—but I watch a lot of bad TV.  Other people follow programs with plots, complicated characters, mystery and revelation, human frailties and dramatic redemptions.  I watch “Mythbusters,” “Iron Chef,” and—my secret favorite—”What Not to Wear.”

When friends discover my viewing habits, I claim it’s secondhand TV, stuff my children watch and I overhear.  But now my kids pass through the room groaning as I indulge failings they’ve conquered.  Sitting in front of that stuff is occasionally okay for them, their rolling eyes imply, but I’m an educated man of refined tastes.  They’re too polite to ask, but I know what they’re thinking, “Why do you give a crap about another tearful makeover?”

Yet, make no mistake, I care deeply about makeovers.  When Stacy London and Clinton Kelly (I know their surnames) caustically confront their victim’s sartorial drift, I feel for the “guest.”  When the same person reappears a butterfly at the end of 30 minutes, wiping tears off her now perfectly lined eyes and waxing poetic about how these changes have been more than external, I know the kind cruelty of Stacy and Clinton’s method is wise.  Whaddayaknow, they meant all the best all along.  All the guest needed was some concerned companions to push her in the right direction and an appreciation of her body type and judicious tailoring.

You wouldn’t think I’d identify with these participants.  I’m hardly a candidate for a makeover myself.  First, the What not to Wear pair don’t do males—Clinton’s sarcasm might earn him a very unbecoming black eye—and, second, there’s not much to make Clinton and Stacy’s expertise necessary. While I’m more metrosexual than some, I spend as little time as possible keeping myself up and try to look nice without appearing to care.  It’s absolutely okay for me to choose among six pairs of pants and twelve shirts, as long as I change my underwear and keep my shoes something like polished.  And I haven’t lost my way or suffer from diminished confidence because I’ve quietly given up on me-time.  My dreams of a new haircut evaporate at the sight of the first bald man.  I have hair.  I’m lucky.

So why do I watch?  I’d like to believe I’m above the brazen manipulation of a makeover  story, but maybe I need some possibility in my life too, if not for me than for someone else, someone—I’m always convinced—deserves it.  I like getting to know these women.  They do what we all do, spend energy burying dissatisfaction instead of doing something about it.  They think it’s petty to want a new dress because what they really want, and are ashamed to want, is to be noticed, valued, loved.  That, anyone can identify with.

Look at me, I’m not ready to confess I’m a fan of “What Not to Wear” on Facebook—because that’s kind of weird—but wouldn’t it be better if I could come out of my closet —with or without all my outdated and wrong clothes—and admit I want to start over, to love myself without remorse?  Maybe I’m rationalizing my lowbrow tastes, but couldn’t we all use a makeover sometimes…and a $5000 Bank of America credit card to make it possible?

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Filed under Essays, Home Life, Hope, life, Meditations, Television, Thoughts, Tributes, What Not to Wear